The Little Irish Warrior's Flight to Freedom

Photo of Carol
Photo of Carol
The Castletown River runs through the ‘border town’ of Dundalk, Ireland, and then empties into Dundalk Bay. They call it a border town, because it rests snugly against the invisible line dividing Ireland from Northern Ireland.

Records indicate this region of Ireland has been inhabited since at least 3500 B.C. In ancient times, Dundalk was written Dundalgan, linking it to the Irish mythical warrior Cú Chulainn. You can see on the banner flowing beneath the town’s classic crest the following words: Mé do rug Cú Chulainn Cróga which means, “I give birth to the brave Cú Chulainn.” This larger-than-life folklore hero is best known for his displays of strength, courage and sheer determination while still just a teenager. It was prophesied by many this warrior’s great deeds would be remembered forever and results in everlasting fame.

Carol Hickey, like many a young lass in Ireland, attended an all-girls Catholic school. Her school, St. Vincent’s, was practically a stone’s throw from her family’s home in Dundalk, Ireland. In 1982, the town was much smaller than today. Everyone knew everyone. Faces were immediately recognized, and names were quickly recalled.

Even though Hickey was not excessively enthusiastic about attending St. Vincent’s, she certainly enjoyed its athletic programs. At this time of her young life, as it would be in later years, it consumed her. She was especially fond of gymnastics, and as a teenager taught the sport to young children in her hometown. She took great pleasure in coaching the little ones, but she also earned money to travel to London where her hero, Nadia Comaneci, an Olympic gold medalist, would be performing at Wembley Stadium.

Hickey’s passion for gymnastics was obvious, but something else had captured her young mind and heart — flight. She desperately wanted to learn to fly. For as long as Hickey can remember, flying and things that fly sent her spirit and imagination soaring. She even had a pet seagull.

“At a very early age, I was fascinated with flight. I loved airplanes and anything that could fly,” Hickey said. “Yes, I did have a pet seagull, and yes, I did read Jonathan Livingston Seagull many times.”

In the fall of 1982, just two months into her 16th year of life, Hickey took the day off from school to care for her mother who was ill. She rode her bicycle to the nearby pharmacy, or chemist, as they say in Ireland, and picked up a prescription for her ailing mother. The road home was rough, very narrow and heavily traveled. Trucks of all size used it as a main artery to the docks, at Dundalk Bay, where ships loaded and unloaded freight at a frantic pace daily.

Hickey’s legs churned hurriedly, moving the bike at a steady pace along the outside edge of the road that she shared with a massive 18-wheeler. Its driver was focused on little else but making it to the shipping docks before its loading ramps closed. In the opposing, single lane, two cars were approaching Hickey and the 18-wheeler. The second car suddenly decided to pass the first, and moved into the lane occupied by the 18-wheeler and Hickey. The car and the 18-wheeler were now on a collision course. Instinctively, the driver of the 18-wheeler jerked on his steering wheel moving the truck to the side of the road to avoid a head-on collision with the car. Unfortunately, he was now headed straight for Hickey and her bike.

The massive truck swerved again, trying to avoid Hickey, but still clipped the bike. Hickey went flying. Moments later, she was lying in the middle of the busy, narrow road thinking, “I’ve got to get up and get the medicine to my mother.” Hickey could not get up. She had sustained a life threatening compound fracture of her spine. The driver of the 18-wheeler rushed to her aid. An attendant at a nearby gas station who knew Hickey was by her side in moments, too. As the ambulance and paramedics arrived, a new fear for her life came in to play. It was quickly determined she must be flown by way of military helicopter to a hospital in Dublin.

The battle for unification of the Irelands and independence from Great Britain was still very much a part of daily life in Hickey’s hometown of Dundalk. Due to its adjacency to Northern Ireland, spontaneous armed clashes and brutal terrorist activity between the two rival factions were common place. Both sides of the conflict were keenly aware any acts of aggression, perceived or real, would be met with a forceful and often deadly response. A military helicopter flying close to the border would certainly be seen as such an act.

Rebellious groups such as The Irish Republican Army and Sinn Féin were ready, willing and able to launch shoulder mounted missiles capable of knocking down an enemy helicopter regardless of its mission. Hickey never knew for certain why or how the military rescue helicopter safely touched down on the road where she laid, but it did. Thank God for a few moments the life of a young girl was more important than political agendas or the pursuit of power.

This dark twist-of-fate had also turned Hickey’s dream of flying into reality, but for a reason which could only be called a nightmare. The lively young athlete was instantly paralyzed from mid-chest down. The helicopter took Hickey on the first flight of her life, but there would be many more to challenge and change her life in ways she could never have imagined.

Somehow, some way, Hickey survived her horrid accident, but the newly disabled teenager quickly sensed her paralysis might not be the most limiting aspect of her new life. At this time, Ireland’s socialized medicine was not particularly friendly to the disabled. It became clear to Hickey to achieve her life’s goals and fulfill her dream of one day flying, she must leave her Irish home.

“By the time I was 19, I was really tired of rejection. I’d had enough of people telling me I can’t do this or I can’t do that. I’m the kind of person when someone tells me I can’t do something, I’ll find a way so I can. One thing I knew, I was going to be a competitive athlete. I didn’t know what sport, but I was going to do it. I was also going to learn to fly, too. I was going to find a way,” Hickey said.

Hickey kicked her tenacious spirit into high gear and began exploring, searching and researching every opportunity to fulfill her dreams. In her search, she came across a magazine called Sports and Spokes. This incredible worldwide publication featured the many competitive and recreational sports available to the disabled community. In one of the bimonthly issues, Hickey read about an organization in Pennsylvania called Freedom’s Wings. This nonprofit international organization was created to provide disabled individuals the opportunity to fly gliders.

Powered by only the wind, these sailplanes took people with disabilities and special needs flying. Specially adaptive sailplanes even allowed the disabled to become pilots. Needless to say Hickey flew through this door of opportunity and immediately sent a letter chronicling her story to Coopersburg, Pa., the home of Freedom’s Wings. In short order, Hickey was on her way to Pennsylvania, anxious to learn to fly.

“It was wonderful. I lived with a family while I was learning to fly gliders. I was told I was the first disabled woman to solo in a glider,” Hickey said.

On one of her solo flights, she lost a bit of air and began to fall to earth more rapidly than planned. The grass landing strip was adjacent to a small road where a car was traveling. The car was in her glide path as she made a powerless descent to the grassy runway. Flying over, yet nervously close to the car, Hickey’s landing was a bit hard, but safe. Surprisingly, the driver jumped out of his car and briskly marched toward the glider and its young pilot saying, “You know if you had an engine in that thing you could have circled and tried that landing again.”

The awkward, yet lighthearted exchange was followed with information offered by the driver regarding The Royal International Air Tattoo. This oddly named program, sponsored by the British Royal Air Force, hosts one of the most revered air shows in the world and also provides scholarships to young people who want to learn to fly airplanes. It has a special focus on women and the disabled. Again, a door opened and Hickey scrambled to enter. In 1993, Hickey was one of only nine people awarded an Air Tattoo scholarship. Hickey was soon on her way to the United States to learn to pilot powered aircraft and partake in even more life changing adventures.

“I first went to Atlanta to learn to fly. I soon saw this was a place a person like me could easily get on a bus, find a good job and experience more freedom. I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be great to live here,’ ” Hickey said.

In 1994, Hickey received her green card, allowing her to live and work in the United States. From that moment on, Atlanta has been her home. She has not yet returned to Ireland, not even for a short visit.

With the green card in hand, Hickey found employment with the 1996 Paralympic games as program manager of Paralympic Day in Schools. This state of Georgia outreach program was created to educate and inform school children about people with disabilities and sports. Its goal was to breakdown the wall of prejudice and alienation of the disabled, which often inhabits schools. This job led to another, allowing Hickey to encourage school administrators and educators to include sports programs for the disabled in the district’s curriculum.

Then Hickey also found a new sport that set her competitive spirit on fire — wheelchair fencing. Her work and her fencing workouts gradually consumed her life. In many respects, fencing became her life.

“Fencing is one of the few sports that has retained its original formalities. You must wear a complete and traditional uniform. You must properly greet your opponent and acknowledge the audience. Whether you’re standing or sitting in fencing you must abide by the customs and formalities of the sport or else,” Hickey said.

As her training intensified, she lunged deeper and deeper into the minutest aspect of her sport and all things surrounding it. Always asking what would give her a greater competitive edge. She would even mentally dissect the construction of her wheelchair in an attempt to determine if its size and composition allowed maximum, productive movement when in the heat of competition. Hickey worked with a sport psychologist several days a week, focusing on how to take control of her competitive environment and live in the moment while facing her adversary. Hickey’s intensity and dedication paid off in 2002 when she won a Bronze Medal in the World Champion Fencing competition. She continued to compete on an international level for many years after her championship victory.

Today, Hickey works for Mobility Designs in Atlanta, where she helps people with disabilities find the right equipment for their specific needs. She also works tirelessly to find patient funding for complex rehab technology to provide the freedom and independence so many want, need and deserve. Often those sources say, ‘no,’ but as we’ve learned the word ‘no’ has never and will never stop Hickey.

Like the mythical Irish warrior Cú Chulainn, Hickey’s display of strength, courage and sheer determination has served her well, beginning as a teenager laying motionless and clinging to life in the middle of a busy road in Dundalk, Ireland. Her journey can only be categorized as miraculous. It’s the kind of story which conjures folklore, creates legends and launches tales of how ordinary people overcome extraordinary obstacles and go on to live inspirational lives.

Everlasting fame? Maybe. Everlasting admiration? Definitely!

Contact
Carol Hickey may be reached at Carol@Mobilitydesigns.com or 678.206.2126

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